It was legislative-delegation time in Flagler County Friday afternoon afternoon–the time when local governments, social service agencies, non-profits and individuals bring their wish lists to the the county’s two lawmakers and plead their case in hail mary passes that arc in three-minute increments.
There were no surprises, though one legislator hinted that it’ll be a difficult year to send money back to local governments.
Unlike one or two previous such sessions in the earlier part of the decade when one overriding issues drove residents in big numbers to the meeting to call for a legislative change, the meeting room’s audience was made up largely of people who were either addressing the delegation or were with people addressing it. Residents at large were mostly indifferent.
That’s not always the case. In 2013 and 2014 the legislative delegation meeting was rife with angry residents who wanted a change to the vacation-rental law, because they felt their neighborhoods’ character was being damaged by the increase in such rentals. It worked. The law was changed thanks to Flagler County’s delegation. That was in 2014, and local regulation was allowed once again. But ever since, the vacation-rental industry has been trying to push back on regulations again. The difference is that, in contrast with 2013 and 2014, no residents spoke to the legislative delegation to change back the law and scale back allowances for local regulation, which underscores where the pressure to scale back the law is coming from: it’s not residents as much as vacation-rental concerns.
The difference may have been lost on the two legislators who form Flagler County’s delegation: Sen. Travis Hutson and Rep. Paul Renner, both Republicans. Renner was not elected until 2015. Hutson, while instrumental in helping to pass the 2014 legislation, had weakened it in the House, and is tepid when it comes to keeping the law as it is (as Flagler County is asking him and Renner to do). (Clarification: As noted in the comments, the count has scheduled a public meeting specifically focused on short-term rentals, with its legislative delegation, for Nov. 20.)
Friday, Flagler County Commissioner Donald O’Brien presented the county’s wish list to the legislators. Vacation rentals didn’t figure prominently on the list only because the ongoing battle is a given (a Senate committee is concluding a workshop on the matter on Tuesday), and some change is expected, though the county administration is continuing its shuttle diplomacy with Tallahassee to preserve as much of the existing law as possible.
Many of the proposals submitted to the legislators have been hashed out in local government meetings several times before–A few million dollars for Flagler County’s shredded beaches, for better drainage in the Hammock, for a utility in Plantation bay that a private developer dumped in the county’s hands in deplorable conditions. Palm Coast is pushing hard for the Florida Department of Transportation to put back money in its five-year plan for the widening of Old Kings Road north of Palm Coast Parkway, especially after local officials were dismayed to discover that the department chucked Palm Coast off five-year list. The city, as with Flagler Beach, is also asking for money to help with wastewater improvements.
Atop the county’s wish list is the renewed push for an additional judge for County Milissa Moore-Stens, who was lined up for a second judge earlier this year–Renner had secured more than enough money for full-time help, along with a similar judge in Citrus County, also underserved in that regard–only for Gov. Rick Scott to veto the appropriation.
Hutson said the message he got from the governor was not that Scott was opposed to funding the two additional judges, but that he was opposed to doing it piecemeal. “He said go after the whole thing,” Travis said, meaning that a more permanent solution be found. Hutson filed a one-page bill on Sept. 1 to give Flagler and Citrus two permanent county judges instead of one. It’s been referred to committees.
Renner took a bit of a lashing from Flagler Beach City Commission Chairwoman Jane Mealy, who has been critical in the past and was again critical Friday of what she sees as Renner’s lacking defense of home rule–the principle that local governments know best how to regulate their affairs. Renner, in a radio interview, spoke in support of giving the state more room to pre-empt (or forbid) local regulations in some regards, giving the state exclusive sway. But Friday he sought to tamper perceptions that he was referring to Flagler regulations in particular. To the contrary, he said, there are no such issues that warrant pre-emption locally.
Among other requests, the legislators heard from Jim Ulsamer, the long-time chairman of the Flagler County Public Library Board, who pushed for a $500,000 state construction grant for a new building (that new structure would go up on grounds close to the existing Government Services Building, to serve the south end of the county and replace the Bunnell branch). He said a system with 42,000 active card holders that draws 1,000 visitors a day should get state support. “The history of state aid to the library here in Flagler County is checkered at best,” Ulsamer said.
Jane Gentile-Youd, a Plantation Bay resident who seems to lose her voice pleading for help for the decrepit Plantation Bay utility, pleaded again with the legislators, and Alan Petersen, a former Palm Coast council member and county commissioner, pitched what may have been the most surprising request of the evening when he asked for more local authority regarding red-light cameras. He was on the Palm Coast council when the cameras were first installed in 2007 for what would turn into a nightmarish decade for drivers and for the city, which, like its private provider (American Traffic Solutions) faced litigation and black eyes over the system, including angry lectures from local judges, until the council voted to dismantle it all two years ahead of schedule. It did so earlier this year.
In an echo of the sheriff’s earlier public meeting revealing the results of his domestic violence task force, Ed Fuller, a CrimeStoppers board member, asked legislators to toughen penalties for repeat domestic violence offenders–and to create a state university-level program, or a “center of excellence,” to study beach erosion.
By the time he spoke, much of the room had emptied and the meeting was grinding toward two hours. Renner cautioned that a “tough session” was ahead, and neither he nor Hutson, now seasoned enough to know, made promises.
The 2018 legislative session begins Jan. 9 and ends in March.